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The Americas Cup in New Zealand 2003

I was lucky enough to have a life long dream fulfilled this year as I was invited down to New Zealand this February to watch the America’s Cup yacht race. My wife Sharon and I would be able to follow the racing on a friend of mine’s family boat, so we could see the racing right up close. I had not seen my friend Richard Manthel for nearly 10 years, so it was also a great excuse to head down there and catch up with him, plus see a few other friends I had met during my days as a ski bum in Aspen, Colorado.

Getting down there was simple enough, but you had to part with a large number of green folding units to get a seat. I had been calling the airlines for months to see if we could go using our air-miles, but with no luck as every air mile seat was taken. Two weeks before the racing started, one seat comes available with another one a few days later.

The final hurdle was that Sharon had no vacation time at work, so I had to approach her boss on a bended knee and managed to convince him what a great opportunity this was for her. Luckily enough for us he agreed that it was a life time opportunity and let her take the time off un-paid. We called to book the flights and luck was with us again as another seat came available which meant we could fly down together. A side bonus of the ride down was that we got to stay 2 days in Fiji going out and a day on the way back. We are on, and Fiji is not exactly a tough place to wait for an aircraft change.

The flight out to LA was fine, but the ride to Fiji was one of the bumpiest flights I have ever been on. You know it is rough when the air-hostess are getting sick and asking you to pass a sick bag, as the guy next to you has used all the closest ones. We got off that amusement park ride Air Fiji called a Boeing 747in Nadi, shaken but not sickened and stayed at the Sheraton. Fiji was an awesome place with the water warm and the people genuinely friendly.

Fiji is very different to the Caribbean where I have often felt a little unwelcome as the locals can on occasions give you the “%$#@ tourist” look. The locals in Fiji were actually interested in the tourists and would even wave hi to the tour busses going through their villages. We took full advantage of all the Sheraton’s water toys, even if the sails to go with the Starboard were a little past their use by dates. Bula Fiji….

A short hop from Fiji took us to Auckland, the main city in New Zealand, located on the North Island and aptly named the city of sails. The Americas Cup and the previous Louis Vuitton qualification races were all held out on the Hauraki Gulf, which is a large stretch of water just out from the Auckland city harbor.

Auckland has undergone a major transformation since I was down there last in 1992 and the economy was now booming, so things were looking up. The city had even built a new tower down town called the Sky Tower and it dominates the city profile.

They do some interesting things at this tower, including a bungy jump off the top. This is something to make your hair stand on end and unfortunately we did not get to have a go at it. The little spec in the lower part of the picture is the bungy jumper.

The Sky Tower is seriously high and winds are a problem for anyone jumping off the top, so to make the jump possible, a pair of cables had to be run from the top of the tower to the landing spot. The cables are tensioned up very taught and the jumper falls down to earth with the two wires keeping them from being blown off into the Hauraki Gulf by the wind.

The tower also has a number of clear plastic floor panels fitted to the observation deck and give any vertigo sufferer, like me, a bit of a thrill. You can walk on these clear panels and have the elusion of having nothing stopping you from falling 192m (630 feet) into the down town area...

These Kiwi’s do not mess around, so when the wife has enough of you, off you go to the bottom, without the use of the elevator.

The central harbor area of Auckland used to be a dirty old series of fishing wharves, and the whole area was nothing to write home about. When the America’s Cup was won by the Kiwi’s for the first time in San Diego in 1992, the City used this as the catalyst to clean up and transform the viaduct harbor area.

The American Express viaduct harbor is now a trendy area of town and during the races, is graced by many a Billionaire’s super yacht like Larry Ellison’s...

The newly renovated Viaduct was first used in 1995, when the late Sir Peter Blake headed the Team New Zealand syndicate defense of the cup.

All the teams were based in boat “sheds” built along what is now know as syndicate row. It is fun going into each of the team’s stores and just to buy their souvenirs or in the case of the Alinghi shed, enjoy a much more interactive experience...

Alinghi had an elaborate display, including the Louis Vuitton Cup, a set of grinding winches and a bucking bronco like fore deck, simulating the bow-mans job.

The idea is that you have to take a rope from foot of the mast to the bow and clip it on with a carabineer. All the while the deck is bouncing around and as you kneel down to clip the line on, a hose sprays you with water.

Sharon was successful at clipping the line and completing the return, I was thrown off multiple times, never getting back to the mast base successfully.

The Races get underway

We got into Auckland in mid-week and the sailing started that Saturday. There was a massive fleet out to watch the races.

Unfortunately the racing was very one sided, Alinghi taking the series 5-0, with Team New Zealand only contesting 3 races.

Race one saw a massive spectator fleet and it looked like you could walk from one side of the Hauraki Gulf to the other without getting your feet wet. The opening race saw fresh conditions and the huge number of spectator boats caused a large amount of chop.

The boats came off the line battling a large chop from the spectator fleet and Team New Zealand seemed to get into trouble right after the start. Rumor had it, that the two black boats collided during the warm up to the races and the practice boat was cracked almost in two, so was not seen on the water for around a week. The race boat suffered some delaminating of the deck and to make matters worse, a sail bag reportedly got stuck in the delaminated self bailing scupper.

The rough conditions saw a lot of water coming over the side of Team New Zealand and the errant sail bag reduced the self bailing ability of the boat. From the TV coverage, we saw a crew member bailing the $ 30 million dollar boat, with a $ 1 dollar bucket used for crew ablutions. The poor guy would bail a couple of gallons out only to see 50 gallons come right back on from the next wave, it was not going to be easy to recover from that position, even though the black boat was keeping up with Alinghi.

The extra weight of water on-board was estimated at 5 tons and loaded up the rig of a boat already sailing at its max in the 25 knots breeze.

It was only a matter of time before something broke and the first thing to let go was the very exotic new boom that Team NZ was using. The boom had a much thinner tail to it, in an effort to reduce weight, but the loads must have been enormous as the spar let go in a dramatic way. The broken tail to the boom meant that Team New Zealand could not apply full outhaul tension to their main sail and the sail profile thickened up. This would be great for power, but the boat was over powered in those conditions anyway, so the crew had to let some traveler off, in an effort not to send the rig over the side.

Now the black boat was starting to let Alinghi ever so slightly creep away as the crew frantically dealt with the flood and the broken boom. Now that the boat is water ballasted in a way the designers never intentioned and the main sail is developing much more power than anticipated, something disastrous was very likely to happen. In an effort to reduce windage, Team  New Zealand designed the boat with only one forestay and used this as the Jib luff tensioner as well. The massive pounding of the boats coupled with the extra loads of the water on-board, took the jib tack fitting way past its design loadings and so the head sail let go next. With the boat taking on water, the boom broken and the head sail letting go, it seemed prudent for Dean Baker to with draw from the race so as not to replicate Stars and Stripes trip to the bottom of the ocean.         

Race number 2 saw some awesome racing and great fun to watch. While jockeying for position to watch the racing, we found a great spot next to a super deluxe yacht from Pascagoula, Mississippi. We originally thought the boat must have been repossessed from the WorldCom Executive, Bernie Ebbers, as we could not think of a wealthy individual from Mississippi. We later found out that the owner was the lead lawyer who got a massive payout from the Tobacco litigation settlements. That boat just happened to have Mr. America’s Cup himself, Dennis Conner on deck. As you can see from his waste line, he must have become very partial to New Zealand pies over the years he has been coming down south.

One urban legend that might account for this state of girth is that New Zealanders consume more pies per person than any other nation on earth and Dennis was helping out keeping up the averages.

While waiting for race number two to go off, our hosts, Neil and Dree Manthel ensured that we found a nice spot in a quite bay and we cracked open some of the great New Zealand wines. Quite a few of those legendary pies disappeared into the guests on-board, along with enjoying the great weather and calm waters. We could get very close to the racing boats as they were towed back and forth, waiting for the wind to fill in, which added to the whole experience.

The racing started late on in the day, after having to wait for the massive spectator fleet to move when the wind shifted. The marshal boats were not very effective and the spectator fleet only found out that it needed to move when the TV commentators mentioned it was holding up the start. All the spectator boats seemed to have TV’s on-board and everyone was anxious to see some sailing after waiting out on the gulf all day for the breeze to fill in. A few minutes later all the boats had moved back and Race 2 was on.

Alinghi came out of the start nicely and took the first beat to windward by a 20 second margin. The second leg saw Team New Zealand, catch a wind shift and came charging past the Swiss on the down wind run to take a sizable lead at the bottom mark. The Hula works and everything looked great for the black boat. We all cracked open some more of that great New Zealand wine and looked forward to seeing the match all square at 1-1, with a humdinger of a series to follow.

The Hula (Hull Appendage) was a very interesting innovation from Team New Zealand in an effort to gain a boat speed advantage. The Hula is almost a second hull, fitted onto the stern of the boat and allows Team New Zealand to have a greater water line length and volume than the rules allow for just in the hull. The boat measuring in the America’s Cup is obviously quite tight, so the Hula gets around the water line length rule by not actually being part of the hull. The Hula is an appendage attached to the boat like a rudder or keel fin and the rules allow for 20 percent of the volume of the boat to be appendages.  The Hula give the boat an extra foot of effective water line. The engineering involved must have been quite tricky as there could only be a 2 mm gap between the hull and the hula to reduce the drag penalty. Plus the rules only permitted attaching the Hula on a 10 inch wide strip down the middle of the hull, so that joint had to be mighty strong. 

The much hyped up Hula resulted in many Team New Zealand supporters wearing Hawaiian shirts in support of the Hula’s gona do ya campaign. Some folks went even further and built a Hula barge and drove it out to the race course.

The Hula barge was a pontoon boat with a flat deck, covered in beach sand, palm trees, a tropical hut and some bikini clad girls.

The Hula girls no longer remained clad whenever the Team New Zealand boat was towed past the barge...

Back to Race # 2. New Zealand held a sizable lead until close to the final windward beat and in my opinion, this is where the race was lost. Dean Barker started to play it safe and seemed to choke. Barker would immediately follow a Coutts tacking maneuver and not extend his lead, wait for the wind to shift and then tack. Coutts masterfully showed how to do this correctly in later races. Coutts would let the other boat tack away and was confident enough to extend his lead on the opposite tack, while he still had boat speed, only tacking during the next wind shift. This tactic carries a slight risk of getting out of phase with the other boat, but enables the lead boat to take advantage of getting the puffs first and extending away from the chasing boat. On the upwind legs, the lead boat usually has the advantage, in part due to the fact that they always see the wind first and the advantage is reversed on the run down wind. Team NZ’s playing it safe, let Alinghi close up the race, leaving a 20 second gap as they rounded the final upwind mark.  

The end result of letting Alinghi get this close, was that the Coutts / Butterworth combination had a chance to work their magic as the door was still open. On the final run downwind, Coutts jibed away, with Barker covering loosely. Alinghi caught the pressure first on a number of occasions and closed up on the Kiwi boat, until they were only a length back and putting disturbed air into Team New Zealand sails. Alinghi goes particularly well on broad reach with a spinnaker and stay sail up. This sail combination allowed Coutts to spring his roll maneuver just like he did to the Oracle BWM team in the Louis Vuitton cup. Alinghi blew right by the Team New Zealand boat halfway down the final leg and once Coutts is in front, he does not tend to give up the lead. The result was an Alinghi victory by 7 seconds to put them 2-0 up and decided the regatta.  

Race # 3, we tried to watch while we were on the road, from the beautiful town of Russell heading back to Auckland. This race was finally cancelled due to lack of wind. We would stop off at a road side pub every half an hour on the way back, to see if they had started racing. If not, we would put some more miles on the clock heading back to Auckland’s viaduct harbor.

My friend Grant Bremner flew up from New Zealand’s capital, Wellington, to see the third race on the Saturday. His wife is a big muckety muck with the New Zealand power company, so they were guests aboard the HP smooze boat. These boats pay the organizers $ 5,000 dollars and have the privileged of being 100 yards inside the spectator fleet line, to get an even better view of the racing.

The HP boat was a gorgeous cruiser and due to be shipped to the US at then end of the races, to be made available for sale at the eye popping price of $10 million. Unfortunately for Grant and his wife, the racing was cancelled that day due to no wind, but they enjoyed the cruise around the bay.

Race 3 finally got underway a few days later. The left side of the course looked favorable right up until 2 minutes to go, when the Swiss weather team said go right. This information and Butterworth’s uncanny ability to pick the first shift off the line meant that the Alinghi after-guard went for the right side of the course. Team New Zealand picked the left and the start was a split tack. The wind did indeed shift to the right in a big way and that shift helped the Swiss to convert that advantage into a big early lead, rounding the top mark with a 28 second lead. The Kiwi after-guard also got the right hand call from their weather team just before the start, but decided to discount the information. That turned out to be the difference as Alinghi held the lead all the way home to win with a 23 second margin and go 3-0 up in the regatta.

Race Number 4 was another disaster and saw Team New Zealand go out with a broken mast. The race started off with both boats making a time on distance run to the start line and Russell Coutts timed his run to perfection. Team New Zealand was a few seconds late and trailed that same distance all the way up the first beat.

The second beat upwind saw both boats close and only separated by the starting mistake distance, but trying to avoid being fully powered as they hit large waves rolling down the course. The first of a  pair of particularly large waves picked Team NZ’s boat up and slammed the bow down into the face of the following roller. The impact was the final straw that broke an overloaded spreader fitting and their $ 700,000 mast came crashing down around the boat. Team New Zealand were forced to withdraw, Alinghi just had to complete the course to go 4-0 up, looking very reliable and undefeatable.

In my opinion, this might have been a moment for Russell Coutts and the other Kiwi defectors to think about their future welcome in New Zealand. If they were not so ruthless, they could have stopped their boat, withdrawn from the race and let Team New Zealand come out to race another day. By withdrawing at this moment, they would have taken all the fizz out of the Kiwi “Loyal” campaign. Coutts and the other Kiwi defectors would have been seen in a totally different light, welcome back in the country any time they wanted. Instead, Coutts had to go out again for race 5 with a minder on-board and rumors that he and Butterworth were wearing bullet proof vests during the pre-race boat tow out from the Viaduct Harbor.

Race 5 and the cup is up for grabs. Coutts powered Alinghi down the line to cross at the gun to nail another perfect start and was again ahead of Team NZ. From the outset, Alinghi looked to point a little higher and was a little quicker, with a long drag race to port on the first beat. More gear failure saw Team NZ breaking its spinnaker pole approaching mark four, prudently the Kiwis had an extra pole on board. Trailing by almost eight boat lengths rounding the final mark, Team NZ was just too far behind to make a dent in Alinghi’s lead. Alinghi crossed the finish line to take the 31st America’s Cup from Team New Zealand by 45 seconds and the series 5-0.

We had a great time one afternoon, racing two of these incredible America’s Cup boats against each other out on the Hauraki Gulf.

The three hour race enabled us to experience what it was like to get these boats around the course, grinding the sails and seeing how the various tactics won and lost the races.

We were also very privileged to witness an amazing feat of sporting history as we watched these sailors perform at the very top of their game.

Russell Coutts extended his unbeaten record of 14 America’s Cup victories. He has won 14 races without a loss, surpassing Dennis Conner for total victories and Charlie Barr for most victories without a loss. His third consecutive Cup victory ties him with Harold Vanderbilt and Charlie Barr in that category. While Coutts’ place in the history books is assured, there are other members of his crew who have more consecutive victories.

Brad Butterworth (tactician), Murray Jones (traveller), Warwick Fleury (mainsheet), Simon Daubney (genoa trim) and Dean Phipps all have 15 straight wins. They sailed the final race of Team New Zealand’s highly successful 2000 defense when Coutts sat out to let Dean Barker skipper the boat home in the final race against Prada.

A consolation for Team New Zealand, is that in the three races that both boats finished, Alinghi only won by an average of 25 seconds. This ranks as the closest average delta for a series in cup history.

However, Brad Butterworth's summary of the differences between Team New Zealand and Alinghi was the most apt: "Five-nil."

The time had come where we could not stay on in New Zealand any longer and had to head on home to Dallas. Eight years ago, in 1995, Team New Zealand became the second non-US syndicate to win the trophy. Three years ago, at the start of the new millennium, Team New Zealand made history by being the first non-US syndicate to successfully defend the Cup. The cup award ceremony marked the end of an era in New Zealand and hopefully all the urban regeneration benefits that the cup brought to the city of Auckland’s Viaduct Harbor will now be self sustaining.

Thanks New Zealand for a great time, see you on Lake Geneva for 2007…..

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